Mary was born in 1939 at Kings Nympton Park Estate in North Devon. The family lived in a farm manager’s cottage with no running water, no electric, and they only had a black Bodley stove for heating and cooking. They did have a primus stove to boil a kettle in the early 50’s. Mary had to carry a gallon of paraffin home from the village, one and a half miles for it, and the Tilley light other than lighting the candles. Electric came in 1964 but still no running water. They fetched drinking water from the Manor House, half a mile round trip there and back. For washing clothes, they dammed the stream to carry buckets to fill the boiler in the shed and you had to light the fire to heat it. They also had a large rain water tank that collected water from the roof. They did have a few bantams for their eggs. Dad and Mary carried a lantern to the fields for lambing season, and she looked after the tame lambs. Milking the cows by hand straight into a large bottle with a teat, took it to the orchard to feed them while the milk was still warm.
Mary used to groom the Shire horses when she was very small. Her brother wasn’t born then so she would have been under 10 years old. She would comb down their legs and under their tummies and her father would chuck her up onto their backs. She remembers Farmer and Black Mariah and Prunie, who was her special one. Mary would ride out into the fields, no saddle or anything, slide down off Prunie’s back and take her halter off and let them loose for the night.
Mary and her Dad cut timber from the woods with a crosscut and brought it home with a horse and cart, then sawed them into logs for their fuel for everything. Ash logs were best for getting the oven hot for baking.
Before walking to the village to get the bus to school, Mary used to get her Dad’s lunch bag and take them over to the farm. She had to light the fire to boil the kettle to make his tea. This was put into a bottle and wrapped in newspaper to keep it warm.
Mary used to get a basket of shopping for a pound, with some change, and they had the Co-Op delivery once a fortnight. They used to give them an order book which would be delivered the following fortnight, then a second order book which would come the following fortnight.
In 1947 with very bad snow, Mary and her Dad fetched the boxes of groceries from the van when it got stuck on a hill. They went on the back of Shire horses, about a 4 mile round trip, and balanced the boxes on top of the horses’ shoulders and their knees.
The butcher and baker delivered once a week. They had their milk over at the Manor House, they took a milk can over, and sometimes got cream if there was some to spare. If he had caught a lot of salmon, the Squire would give the workmen a portion. At Christmas they killed a pig and gave them some pork. The Squire’s wife made brawn and shared it. There were 7 orchards so they made cider each year, which the men drank at harvest time. The children loved to make straws out of the corn stems and suck the lovely sweet apple juice. Mary will never forget that taste. The children carried out the teas for the workmen. There were 4 cottages and all the other children helped. All the harvest was done by horse and man. They had a hay pole for pulling the hay up onto the rick. The horse went over and back all day long, pulling the grab handle up and down to the top of the rick.
The men ground the corn for meal to feed the pigs, cracked the oats for the sheep and cows, and cut chaff from straw for the cart horses. They grated mangles (which are a root vegetable a bit like sugar beet) for the animals with a large hand turned grinder. Teams of horses did all the work on the farm until the early 1950s when electric came in 1964. There was no car or phone then even, and cycles were the only form of transport.
In her late teens, Mary cycled 4 miles to the hotel to work in the evenings when her Dad could look after her Mum. Mary didn’t like her job at the Manor House very much. She was a Cinderella in a back kitchen. She didn’t eat with anyone but had to serve them. There was a routine and she did things like washing on a Monday, ironing on a Tuesday, flower arranging on a Wednesday and bedrooms on a Thursday.
Mary worked there from the age of 15 until her mother collapsed and then died when Mary was 18. Her brother was 10 years younger than Mary, so she had to help look after him. She then went out in the evenings to take further education classes in South Molton and learned dressmaking, tailoring, cooking, sweet making and so on. She didn’t go to any higher school, but learnt quite a bit from there.
Mary learnt to swim in the River Mole, with an old cycle tube around her. The village children all met on a Sunday to have a swim. Changed behind the trees and swam above the weir, which was really dangerous. John Westacott got swept down the fish path and into the whirlpool below but managed to get out; he was lucky! Mary and her Dad used to catch eels; they were allowed to catch them on the Squire’s river. They strung up worms. Mary used to go dig worms from the garden and thread them up on like a big darning needle with thread, and put them into a bunch. If there was a really wet night and the river got dirty the next day, her Dad would say “get the worms ready, it’s catching eels tonight!” They were a job to catch; you had to have a cloth because they were so slippery. Her Dad would fling them out onto the grass and they were slithering around and you had to grab them and put them in a sack then take them home and put them in a bucket with salt. In the morning, Mary would skin them, cut their heads off, put a fork around the edge and take their jackets off. They were then rolled in pepper and salt and flour and then fried. Mary remembers them as tasting very sweet.
Mary’s grandma had a lovely big open fire with a clone oven or brick. On Sunday, she would light it with faggots of wood and when it was really hot, in would go pies, cakes, pastries and dumplings with a huge roast meal, meat, potatoes and puddings.
One Christmas, when the women were picking the Christmas poultry, a gentleman asked Mary to pick out all the long feathers, the wing and tail feathers, and he would give her an old sugar box, when they were blue inside with Fry’s chocolate bars.
The hotel had no electric either. There was a generator and the first light that went on started the electric and the last light turned off turned it off again. There were candles in all the bedrooms. That was when the Royal Blue buses used to stop overnight, doing their tours. It was only one nighters but next day you might find number 16 candle in number 14 room but never mind. They’d be on the bus and going somewhere else.
The hotel was sold and went to a private house, but then sold again to a couple from London who had the King Charles Hotel. They gradually turned it into a proper hotel. Three bedrooms were turned into two and they made ensuite bathrooms. It just grew and grew from there. There were a lot of celebrities come down from London in the 60s and 70s and early 80s while Mary worked there. People like Esther Rantzen, Delia Smith, Fanny and Johnny Craddock, Ian Carmichael. Sir Laurence Olivier used to stay 3 months at a time to write his books. He gave a copy of his last book to Mary and signed it. They used to call him Larry and he called her ‘Mary Sweetie Dear’. He’d always have his usual lunchtime snack which was cheese on toast. He’d make his own tea “It’s alright Mary!” as she would be making the sweets and starters in the kitchen. She always remembers one time, he came down “I’ll have my usual Mary and I’ll make my tea.” He went off and made his tea, trotted past Mary and then the bar bell went. “Don’t worry, I’ll see to it!” Off he went. Mary did his cheese and took it in and took it to the corner where he sat. He said “I’ve served that couple with a drink but they would like a snack.” Mary went over to them and took they order and they said “who’s that?”. Mary said “that’s Lord Olivier”.
“Ohh, he served me with a drink!”
Mary said “yes” so he said “would you introduce me to him”.
So Mary took them across and said “Larry, this is so and so” and the man cried, he was just so touched to have been served by a celebrity. Larry was such a casual man, a normal man.
Mary worked at the hotel for 25 years then her husband had a heart attack. They were going to have a tea room, where Mary could do her cooking, or a bed and breakfast. Then they moved to Tavistock, 16 years ago now. She had done Red Cross all her life from a schoolgirl. She has a photo from school where she was presented with her Red Cross badge. She did voluntary work in Holsworthy in a residential home, a nursing home. The boss said to her one day “why don’t you do it properly Mary?”
She said “hang on a minute, Andy, what do you mean?”
He said “Come on the books and then I can pay you.”
Mary thought that was a good idea, so her voluntary work turned into paid work. She did that for 5 years in a nursing home and residential home. At the same time she was making dresses and chutneys and things for the W.I. markets. They used to have coffee mornings and have little vases of flowers on the tables. At the end of the day, they would have been thrown out so Mary took them down to the nursing home and made a big posy pot of flowers.
When they moved to Tavistock, Mary thought that she liked nursing home work. There was a job going at Camplehaye. There were 6 applied but Mary got a call saying “your hours are in the post. Thank you very much.” They realised she could cook so one day a week was cooking.
When Camplehaye was sold, Mary retired as well. That was 11 years ago.
Mary has enjoyed painting since she was a child. There wasn’t much to do in her village. You went to Sunday School and choir practice, which was the social event of the week, and the vicar took them back to his Rectory across the road and taught them oil painting. She painted in oils for years, but when her children came along, you don’t have children and oils so she stopped for a while. She took up oil painting again when they moved to near Holsworthy and she joined an art club and did a lot for Plymouth Cancer Research. When she came to Tavistock, she was still painting in oils but a lady said that she’d love to do watercolours and Mary said “so would I”. So then another lady had heard that they were wanting to do watercolours and said there’s somebody doing that at Horrabridge. So they went along there and Mary carried on with watercolours.